Moses E. Ochonu

Today…I present before you all a historian and scholar who has distinguished himself by not only interpreting the past as historians do, but also by committing himself to the worthy goal of mapping the future. That historian is Professor Moses Ochonu.


Celebrating his Endowment as Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in African History

September 6, 2017

Of all the snarky and humorous comments about historians, one of my favourite ones is still the one by Samuel Butler: “God cannot alter the past, only historians”. The joke here, of course, is on the jester who deliberately misconstrues the role of historians in the society. I leave you all to wonder why I am on the defensive at all when the quote is, in fact, a compliment. Indeed, if historians can do what God cannot do, then historians should be given due reverence and treated as deities! But since I am a bit of an historian myself, I can authoritatively say that historians do not alter the past to prove that they wield God-like powers; nor do they transcend the shortcomings of God himself. Instead, historians have a far more noble task: they are the adventurers who light a path through darkened caves of the human past so that others may chart their futures and never stumble. Today, September 6, 2017, I present before you all a historian and scholar who has distinguished himself by not only interpreting the past as historians do, but also by committing himself to the worthy goal of mapping the future. That historian is Professor Moses Ochonu.

Everyone who knows Moses also knows I am a great admirer of him and his work. I have worked with him in various capacities over the years, and I can say that he is a highly skilled researcher, scholar, and teacher, as well as an exceptional thinker and writer. He is an historian par excellence, the one who has the incredible ability to forge through troves of documents from the past to gain insight into how the present will shape the future. I cannot stop talking about him any and everywhere I go. I am fascinated by his brilliance and his conscientiousness with regard to his scholarly and moral duty to history. I have had endless stimulating conversations with him, and sometimes I in fact like to disagree with him simply to tease out the vast oceans of knowledge and wisdom that constitute his mind, including the walking encyclopedic volume his head carries! I trouble him with questions, even if his answers do not always satisfy me. He is an engaging intellectual, a deep thinker, and an incisive critic whose contributions to African history are both seeds and a harvest at the same time. Most certainly, Moses’ work has planted large plantations of intellectual ideas, scholarly contributions, and pedagogical initiatives that will continue to reproduce bountifully for generations to come.

Indeed, Moses, as I know him, has come a long way on the path of scholarly excellence. He did not just become the Professor Moses Ochonu whom we have congregated to celebrate overnight. There is an African proverb that says that a chick, which will become a rooster, can be spotted from the day it is hatched. That tells us that potential is always obvious in promising young people such as when Moses displayed his potential for great success right from his days at Bayero University, Kano, where he obtained his undergraduate B.A. degree in History. Throughout his stay at Bayero, he held the Bayero University Scholarship for Outstanding Academic Performance. He eventually earned the Michael Crowder Prize for the Best Student in Modern African History and the Best Graduating Student in the Department of History of the class of 1997. His department was so enamoured of his achievements that they immediately offered him a graduate assistantship the same year. Moses, known for his relentless pursuit of his dream of scholarly merit and achievement, travelled to the United States, where he obtained additional academic degrees from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 2004, he was appointed an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University.

…Moses never once hid that he wanted the professorial Chair. That had always been his goal since he stepped into the academic profession, and Moses never wavered in the belief that he could achieve this dream. Today, he holds the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in African History. Moses, we are all very proud of you!!


Never one to rest on his oars or achievements, Moses continued to tread the path of hard work and research to build an illustrious career. At Vanderbilt, he established himself as an authority on the history of colonial and post-colonial Nigeria and as a distinguished scholar of Modern African History. Moses steadily rose through the academic ranks, to the position of associate professor in 2011 and, then, to a full professorial position in history in 2015. At this point, he would have been forgiven by critics if he simply decided to sit back and never did another thing. After all, he had managed to build a star-studded career in a relatively short span. But no, not Moses! He continued to write, to publish, to teach, to give lectures, and to push the boundaries of his own achievements. Within this period, Moses received grants and fellowships from prestigious organisations that respect excellent scholarly vision and output. All through this time, Moses never once hid that he wanted the professorial Chair. That had always been his goal since he stepped into the academic profession, and Moses never wavered in the belief that he could achieve this dream. Today, he holds the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in African History. Moses, we are all very proud of you!!

The endowed professorial Chair is in recognition of his prodigious scholarship and contribution to the growing literature on African History. At this point, let me “barbel” about his books. Moses’ first book, Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression, was published in 2009. He wrote this work to counter the existing historical accounts that have characterised the period of the Great Depression as one of non-existent colonial activity in Africa. Okay, so at this point, I think Moses has indeed proved Butler right. Historians, truly, alter the past, but they do so to show how accurate or inaccurate our assumptions and assertions about the past might have been. In this profound work of academic merit, Moses demonstrates the economic impact of the Great Depression on Northern Nigeria, and also shows the resilience of the colonised people of Northern Nigeria against the exploitation of the British colonial government.

His second book, Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness, published in 2014, also explores aspects of British colonial history where the colonial government created “subcolonialism” in Northern Nigeria as a proxy system of government to rule over the people they considered too incorrigible to merit their system of indirect rule. His research shows how the legacy of that period, especially the manipulation of religious history for power, created a mechanism of dominance that continues to define modern Nigerian political culture. The book, very well done, was a finalist for the prestigious ASA Herskovits Prize for the Best Scholarly Book in African Studies in any Discipline in 2015. His third book, Africa in Fragments: Essays in Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity, also published in 2014, is a compendium of essays that explores Nigeria and Africa as it currently is, in a state of ebullition. His forthcoming book – and I encourage everyone to get a copy of it when it is released next year – Emirs in London: Nigerian Aristocrats, Metropolitan Travel, and Imperial Modernity, dwells on the travel narratives of the emirs of Northern Nigeria who travelled to the seat of colonial government in Britain in the early colonial and postcolonial period. This book is a fascinating account of how travel produced a class of citizens who demystified the white man and then turned around to establish themselves as brokers of a new regime of modernity in their local conclaves.

His life – as he has lived it so far – is a unique account he is writing by continuously striving for what is better than the best. With his story, he is also shaping the future of others – in and out of the academia – who will rely on the path this historian forged through the dark and murky caves of the past to behold the promises the future holds for us.


In addition to these books, Moses has produced dozens of scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as book chapter publications in edited volumes. Despite the prodigiousness of his scholarship, he has not sealed himself within the ivory tower. Moses’ feet remain firmly planted on the shores of the local communities with which he works, and as a testimony to his passion for Nigeria, he continues zealously to produce numerous commentaries about Nigerian affairs. He analyses contemporary issues with the skills only a historian has mastered. Having diagnosed the problems, Moses proposes solutions for the country’s progress. His essays have appeared in major Nigerian newspapers in print and online. His provocative article “The Shattering of the Buhari Mythology” in African Arguments was voted by readers as the 2016 Best Article of the Year. On the USA Africa Dialogue Series forum, where I act as the moderator, he is that deep voice of Moses, whose refreshing and combative contributions show him as highly principled and humane, and that he is being seen as an intellectual driven by the goal of forging a better path for his society.

Today, I congratulate Moses for his hard work, his zeal, his contributions, and even his faith in his own dreams. Certainly, historians can do a lot to alter the past as we have been taught to imagine it, but that is not even where their abilities end. What they also do best is help us to navigate the future by providing us with tools to understand the present. Moses is one of those eminent historians, who have empowered us by writing the past and present, while showing us the promises of the future of Northern Nigeria, Nigeria as a whole, and modern Africa. His personal life and the scholarly paths he has taken are, in themselves, a scroll of history. His life – as he has lived it so far – is a unique account he is writing by continuously striving for what is better than the best. With his story, he is also shaping the future of others – in and out of the academia – who will rely on the path this historian forged through the dark and murky caves of the past to behold the promises the future holds for us.

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More grease to your elbow, Moses! You deserve the honour of an Endowed Chair bestowed by the honour’s name sake: Vanderbilt!

Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, The University of Texas at Austin.